PITTSFIELD — The pandemic has complicated the fight against cancer, but a local effort is rallying a sense of hope.
The Relay For Life of Berkshire County will host "A Night of Hope," a drive-thru luminaria event at 7 p.m. Saturday at Guardian Insurance in Pittsfield. The event also will be aired on YouTube beginning at 6 p.m.
Ray Gardino, of Relay for Life, said the display is usually just a portion of the canceled June relay.
"A typical event is usually one full day and it goes all night long because cancer doesn't sleep," he said.
The parking lot at Guardian Life Insurance, at 700 South St. in Pittsfield, will be ringed with roughly 1,300 bags holding lights. Each represents a life touched by cancer.
Recently, the luminaria event has taken place at the track of Monument Mountain Regional Middle and High School, where survivors could march in celebration.
"COVID has gotten all the headlines, but cancer is still there," Gardino said. "We had to think outside the box and it is satisfying that we're doing something. We'll certainly miss the typical event, but there is still money that will be raised."
According to the group's website, $26,500 of a $40,000 goal has been raised with roughly a week remaining. While the money will help those fighting cancer, the relay also honors the strength of volunteers, caregivers and survivors.
Emily Wagner says she has beaten thyroid cancer and melanoma and has volunteered in the relay for nearly a decade. She wears a tattoo with footprints and the words "cancer fears the walker."
"When I walked around the track and saw Boy Scouts saluting us — it still sends chills through me," she said. "I knew they were there and it just hit me more because I knew I was a survivor."
Wagner saw the devastating effects of cancer firsthand working at Fairview Hospital for 18 years.
"I got to know patients and their stories," Wagner said. "A lot of them involved cancer. I said there has to be a way to prevent this and find a cure. I heard about the Relay For Life and joined a team. I did that for a few years and then I got diagnoses — and have now joined the ranks of the survivors."
Wagner started a team of her own — The Cancer Terminators.
"There are people at the relay, when I see them, I know I am getting a big hug," she said. "I know we can't do that this year, which is a saddening fact, but we are going to do the best that we can and make it feel worth it.
She added, "Working the relay is about finding any way I can to fight [cancer] and support other survivors and caregivers who need to know they're not alone."
After a few years in Great Barrington, the event will remain in Pittsfield, at least for now.
"We found Guardian and wanted to try to make it work and I think we will," Gardino said. "Hopefully next year we will be away from the [pandemic] and be at Guardian again."
The relay had used sand to hold down the bags for the luminaria event in previous years, but for 2020, they're using canned goods that will be donated to a local food bank. As of Monday, about 800 cans of food had been collected.
"This way we can do two things at the same time," Gardino said. "We'll be able to give back to Berkshire County in the form of food."
Jake Mendel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @JMendel94 on Twitter and 413-496-6252.